Marx gets a run for his money

Earthly Necessities
June 22, 2001

Keith Wrightson's lucid and magisterial study of the emergence of a commercial society in Britain between about 1470 and 1750 sweeps away the old Marxist nostrum of a transition from feudalism to capitalism and of the rise of a bourgeoisie. But it is not replaced by a limited economic account informed by the certainties of neoclassical economics, which Wrightson criticises for its narrow conception of economic man.

Wrightson's approach is to return to the insights of the Scottish Enlightenment of the second half of the 18th century. As David Hume commented in 1754, the English shook off their "habits of indolence" in the 16th century and became a "flourishing people". And James Steuart defined the change in 1767 as the replacement of a feudal and military society by a free and commercial one, based on satisfying "reciprocal wants" through the market. To these writers, England - and increasingly Scotland - were transformed by industriousness and commercialism. Marx agreed with their insight, adding a concern for class conflict and economic determinism. Wrightson wishes to restore their interpretation, with its greater concern for cultural processes, without Marx's spin. The result is not dry-as-dust economic history resting on a crude assumption of economic rationality or a Marxist dialectic. He is concerned with how people thought and felt about creating and living in a commercial world, with all the difficulties that involved.

At the heart of his account is the household, the basic unit of living and working. In his recent reinterpretation of the "long" 18th century, Jan de Vries argues that we should replace the notion of an industrial revolution, with waves of gadgets sweeping across the country, with the concept of an "industrious revolution" in which members of households allocated their time in different ways. Instead of spending effort on production for their own subsistence, they marketed goods to earn a cash income that could then be spent on buying goods from others. Indeed, their taste for purchased goods might lead them to work harder than in the past. But there was little point in one household opting to specialise in selling and buying in the market, unless others did so. Otherwise, the result would be to create greater risk in a world of narrow resources. Households and regions could specialise only if there was some chance that goods could be exchanged within an integrated national market. Although specialisation might lead to greater efficiency, it also posed risks of reliance on the integrity of customers: would they pay or default?

The creation of this new form of market society changed the nature of human relationships. The great virtue of Wrightson's account of this new market society is its ability to integrate a clear grasp of the economic with the cultural, political and intellectual processes. They simply cannot be separated, for economic practices were embedded in social relationships and cultural meanings.

At the beginning of the period, Wrightson suggests that households were connected with the local community, with a stress on the needs of both through "neighbourliness" and personal, mutual obligation, which was reflected in guilds, fraternities and the life of the parish. This Christian commonwealth was put to the test in different ways in the 16th century by rising prices and population, and then in the 17th century by falling prices and population. In response to these forces, householders started to change their behaviour, with consequences for social relationships. Landed society became more differentiated as some lost out and sold their small plots; others gained, exploiting new opportunities and purchasing more property.

Meanwhile, the emergence of rural industry and urban traders created a larger "middling sort" of commercial farmers, manufacturers, traders and professionals. A larger proportion of the population became landless and dependent on the vagaries of wage labour - and thus more of a threat to order and stability. The nature of social obligations had to be redefined: one of the great virtues of Wrightson's account is the attention he pays to the reworking of traditional social morality. The state accepted the emergence of a commercial economy, even encouraging the growth of capitalist enterprise. Yet it was also anxious to prevent the pursuit of self-interest at the expense of the public good by providing poor relief and maintaining employment. There was fear that commerce was subverting social order - and also confidence that "improvement" and "sociability" would spread the blessings of commerce.

The story told by Wrightson is of how people learnt to live in a commercial society, as Britain moved from a patchwork of local economies into an integrated economy based on a capitalist market economy. Wrightson provides a marvellously lucid synthesis of work by historians of early modern Britain, restoring the insights of the Scottish Enlightenment. Though the book does not contain anything startlingly new to those who have kept up with the specialist literature, newcomers to the discipline should start here. It is the best introduction to current interpretations of early modern Britain. Specialists in other aspects of the period should also read it to discover the context for the attempts of Hobbes or Locke to understand the nature of social relationships in a new form of society.

Wrightson's example needs to be followed for later periods. We need more writing that integrates economic, social and cultural history in the same way. If the rest of the series under the general editorship of David Cannadine fulfils the promise of this splendid first volume, economic history can at last be liberated from the dead hand of economic rationality and number crunching, and political history from the curse of party politics.

Martin Daunton is professor of economic history, University of Cambridge.

Earthly Necessities: Economic Lives in Early Modern Britain

Author - Keith Wrightson
ISBN - 0 300 08391 2
Publisher - Yale University Press
Price - £25.00
Pages - 372

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